Just a few months after I was hired to edit wire copy by the daily newspaper where I work, I came across an article that was so horrific that it provoked a visceral response.
The article described the scene of a Chicago house fire involving a family with young children. The mother managed to rescue one of her babies, but by the time she realized the other children did not escape the home, the blaze burned so hot that she couldn’t get back in to save the rest.
The trapped children were screaming.
As I read the story, I kept hearing them screaming for help.
I heard them screaming that it hurt.
Barely a cub in the newsroom and I began to cry at my desk.
I was overwhelmed with emotion… for the children… for their mother… for the neighbors who I pictured restraining a crazed woman listening to her babies’ screams… and for my embarrassment. My face was red and swollen not just from the terrifying nature of the story but from the knowledge that my sobs had drawn the eyes of my employer and, still, I couldn’t make myself calm down.
Soon enough, I felt my boss beside me, suggesting I leave my desk to gain some composure.
I stepped across the hall and let loose the well. I cried — half for the victims, half for myself.
I was supposed to be a professional. But I felt like a child.
Moments later, after my eyes had been thoroughly drained, my manager came into the room.
Meek from my actions, I gathered myself enough to describe the article and how and why it had affected me so physically.
He nodded his understanding. He knew.
But we can’t let it get to us, he said. We can understand it. We can relate to it. But, he explained, we have to separate ourselves from it.
We can’t do our jobs well if we can’t detach ourselves — and our emotions — from the subjects that we read or write about.
It will be nine years, this September, since I’ve cried over a story. And, although I’m certain my professionalism has benefitted from this learned detachment, I sometimes worry over my soul.
The other day I read about a young woman who, authorities said, laid her newborn baby girl on a roadway, doused the still-breathing child in lighter fluid and lit the helpless little one on fire.
The neighbors said they only realized the burning pile was a child when they suddenly heard it screaming.
More dead children.
The human in me wants to scream, too.
The news person won’t let it out.